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Alexander Iyas and Vladimir Minorsky in Persian Kurdistan 1912 – 1914

The recent discovery of the Alexander Iyas’ collection of photographs taken in Persia between 1901 and 1914 has given us some remarkable images and revealed an astonishingly modern approach to photographic reportage, writes JOHN TCHALENKO.
ear53_iyas_tchalenkoj_pp44-48Reproduced from Eastern Art Report Issue 59. Download and view.
Simultaneously, initial archival work undertaken around this collection in the Russian diplomatic and military archive libraries has introduced a new perspective on issues which so far have been known primarily only through British sources.
Two subjects in particular have received clarification: the Quarantine Cordon in East Persia, of which Iyas was head from 1901 to 1911, and the domination of Persian Azerbaijan by Russia from 1912 to 1914, a domination by methods of which Iyas was openly critical.
In the latter subject, Iyas was supported by Vladimir Minorsky, a Russian diplomat who later became the renowned authority on Persian history and literature.1 The concordance of ideas between Iyas and Minorsky and their collaboration in the field between 1912 and 1914 forms the subject of this article. Fortunately, many of the photographs taken by Iyas during thisperiod have survived, thus providing us with a vivid pictorial rendering of the troubled events which preceded World War I in this northern section of the Middle Eastern front.
(Figure 1) The Persian-Turkish frontier and Turkish occupation force in 1911. After Minorsky, Vladimir 1911: Rosiiskii Gosudartsvennyi Voenno-Istoricheskii Arkhiv, Moscow F 2000 O1, D3904, L269v Российский Государственный Военно-Исторический архив, Москва
(Figure 2) Studio photograph circa 1912, Colonel Alexander Ivanovich Iyas in full uniform. The Finnish Museum of Photography, Helsinki
Iyas and Minorsky in Persia
Alexander Iyas, of Finnish origin, entered the Tsar’s Lithuanian Regiment in 1891 as Sub-Lieutenant at the age of 22. After a short posting in Turkestan, he was appointed in 1901 head of the Russian Anti-Plague Protection unit in Turbat-i Haydari, eastern Persia.
In 1912 he was transferred to Tabriz, capital of Persian Azerbaijan, and eventually to his new post of Russian Consul in Soujbulak, south of Lake Urmiyeh. Vladimir Minorsky, on the other hand, had followed the diplomatic route, entering the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1903. In 1905 he was appointed First Dragoman with the duties of interpreter and secretary at the Consulate-General in Tabriz, followed by a period at the Russian Legation in Tehran and a return to the Ministry in St Petersburg in 1908.
In 1912 he was posted to the Russian Embassy in Constantinople (Istanbul) from where he was sent to the Turko-Persian frontier as head of the Russian delegation to the international Border Demarcation Commission. It was from this point onward that the two men were in frequent contact with each other.2 Minorsky’s reports to St Petersburg indicate that, apart from his work with the Demarcatio Commission, he was also acting as advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on political and strategic matters. It was in fact on Minorsky’s advice that Russia had opened a Consulate in Soujbulak and appointed Alexander Iyas as its first Consul.
Iyas and Minorsky both mastered many of the local languages which they had first studied in Russia3 before travelling to Persia. Iyas, in particular, had a remarkable linguistic ability: he was fluent in Russian, Swedish, Finnish, French, English and Persian and had learned Urdu, Pashtu, Turkish and Kurdish (Kurmanji) since his arrival in Persia. Both men were keenly interested in, and wrote about, the ethnography and culture of the region.4 Undoubtedly, this must have shaped their ideas on Russia’s role and strategy in Persian Azerbaijan.
The Russian Consulate in Soujbulak
“In the last few years,” Minorsky wrote, “the situation on the Turko-Persian border was becoming a serious concern for our Government and it was decided to extend our presence in Persian Azerbaijan with the establishment of a Consulate in Soujbulak, Persian Kurdistan.
Overseeing the restless Kurdish tribes which had until recently been under Turkish rule (1905-1912), demanded a person of considerable experience and patience, and the unanimous opinion was that Alexander Iyas would be the ideal candidate.”5
In a note sent to all the Russian Consulates, Minorsky outlined his views with great clarity and foresight:
“After seven years of occupation, the Turkish Government has agreed to evacuate the border region, agreeing for Persia to take over while making sure that the Sunnites are not harassed by the Shiites. During their occupation the Turks had set up a civil administration which I have described in my report with Shipley.
They established a well-defined system. If this is now changed it will harm the local population. If disorders continue, the Turks will use this as an excuse to interfere once more, especially as they have many local sympathisers.”6
These opening remarks were followed by practical guidelines on how to ensure a successful transition to a Persian administration under Russia’s protection. In practice, Minorsky’s guidelines would be interpreted and implemented by the local Consuls as they saw fit, with ineffective central control from the higher diplomatic echelons in Tehran or St Petersburg. With the exception of Alexander Iyas, these local representatives were belligerent and unsubtle empire builders with little respect for the country they were occupying.
(Figure 3) Alexander Iyas circa 1912 – 1914, Russian diplomatic personnel in Tabriz. Third from right: acting Consul-General Preobrajensky (preliminary identification). The Finnish Museum of Photography, Helsinki
(Figure 4) Alexander Iyas circa 1912-1914, Persian administrators in Soujbulak. The Finnish Museum of Photography, Helsinki
Crackdown on Clerics
They were spurred on by A Y Miller, who had been Russia’s Consul-General in Tabriz up to March 1912 and was presently at the Central Asia Desk at the Foreign Ministry in St Petersburg.
Earlier that year he had ordered the execution of Constitutionalist and cleric prisoners in Tabriz and opened the doors of the city to Shuja ud-Dowleh, Governor of Maragheh and follower of the exiled Shah, who proceeded with a brutal massacre of his enemies.7
A number of Kurdish settled tribes inhabited the region under Iyas’ jurisdiction which included the towns of Soujbulak, Mianduab and Bokan. Soujbulak, today renamed Mahabad, was a town of about 9,000 mainly Mukri Kurd inhabitants. The dominant religion in the constituency was Sunni Islam. In the West, the Zagros mountain range separating Persia from Turkey was the home of seminomadic tribes who migrated yearly between the high mountain pastures in summer and their stronghold villages further down in the valleys in winter. The dominant tribes were the Mangur, Mamash and Piran. Soon after arriving in Soujbulak Iyas outlined the Consulate’s priorities:8
1. “To ensure always that tribal leaders enjoy the rights concordant with their seniority in the tribe and to insist upon the reinstatement of the rightful leader in the case of possible reshuffles by the Shah’s government and the conferment of power, for the sake of gain, upon the tribe’s younger members;
2. To compel the local authorities to desist from injustice, wilfulness, lawlessness and persecution with regard to both individuals and to entire clans and tribes;
3. To make use of the perpetual squabbles of the Kurds over family and property matters to take on the role of mediator and thus encourage them to bring their squabbles, disagreements and other problems to the Consulate.”
Opposed to official Russian policies
During the next two years Iyas would unceasingly work to implement his declared priorities which often fell in direct opposition to official Russian policy. He considered the appointment of Shuja ud-Dowleh as Governor-General of Azerbaijan, engineered by Miller against the wishes of the British and Persian governments, as the worst possible choice for post. He denounced Shuja’s “greedy, provocative and immoral” appropriations of land and property the from the province’s landowners and merchants, and when Shuja interfered to overthrow the head of the Mangur tribe, Bayz Pasha, in favour of his cousin Bapir, Iyas gave Bayz consular protection despite his pro-Turkish loyalties. Shuja then commanded Iyas to extract compensation from Bayz.
Iyas telegraphed Shuja: “I have not yet heard any calls for the reparation of losses caused by the criminal actions of Shuja himself and his supporters during and after the troubles in Tabriz; consequently it has not occurred to me to make the reparation of losses caused in a similar way by … Bayz Pasha Mangur.”9 At this point the Russian protégé, Shuja ud-Dowleh, capitulated.
Fearing that tribal disputes would lead to border incidents encouraging the return of Turkish troops, Iyas saw it as his task to talk to the tribal leaders and defuse any potentially dangerous situations. In his report of an expedition to the Zagros mountains in August 1913,10 he describes an encounter between the heads of the Piran and Mangur tribes:
“Mamed Amin Agha Piran decided to accompany us to the Badinava river which separates the Piran from Mangur territories. He would very much like to be reconciled with Bayz Pasha Mangur, whose property he had robbed and set fire to last April, acting under the orders of Tabriz and being afraid that Shuja ud-Dowleh would be angry with him if he disobeyed, and that Qarani Agha Mamash would consider him his enemy. I advised him to lay all of the blame on me and fearing no one, to come with us to Tirkesh where I would reconcile him with Bayz Pasha. … At 2h we travelled further and soon crossed the Badinava river, whose source is found at Great Kandil and flows into the Laven river.
… On the right bank of the river, one hundred Mangur men headed by Bayz Pasha Mangur were waiting for us…”
Photographic Record
Iyas marked the successful outcome of negotiations with several photographs, including one of a tense Mamed Amin Agha Piran sitting in front of a wall of fierce-looking Mangur warriors.
Minorsky’s official support for Iyas’ actions remained constant throughout 1912 to 1914. Towards the end, during the Russian military build-up in Kurdistan in the autumn of 1914, he telegraphed St Petersburg:
“I consider it my duty to voice my
conviction that the measures we [ie the military command, author’s note] are currently planning will bring us no military advantages whatsoever
… I cannot overstate the importance of involving Iyas in the establishment of relations with the Kurds in the border zone; in his level-headedness he is indispensable. Currently each consulate is implementing its own policy. It may be that the wider political situation demands a war, but it would be deeply regrettable to allow it to come about as a result of unnecessary local complications which can be wholly avoided by removing our posts from the border and desisting from interfering in internal affairs.”11
(Figure 5) Alexander Iyas, 13 August 1913. Turkish border guards at Vezneh. Mounted left: Yuzbashi Rashid Efendi. The Finnish Museum of Photography, Helsinki
The conduct of the Russian consuls in northern Persia is well documented in the British Foreign Office archives.
It is generally interpreted as a clash between, on the one side, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in St Petersburg and the Russian minister in Tehran who were advocating moderation and, on the other side, rogue consuls-on-the spot, supported by extremist elements in the diplomatic corps, conducting themselves like an occupying power and virtually assuming the functions of local government.12
But for Alexander Iyas in Soujbulak the problem was much more one understanding local aspirations in order to avoid the return of the Turks and their Kurdish supporters. As for Vladimir Minorsky, his presence in the region and his role of policy advisor has hitherto remained undocumented.
Both men shared a deep interest in the country and its people although, in the end, their ideals did not prevail.
Assassination of Alexander Iyas
From December 1913 to October 1914 the Turko-Persian Border Demarcation Commission, seconded by British
and Russian arbitration delegates, had been making its way along the disputed frontier, from the Persian Gulf to the Russian frontier near Mount Ararat. Between the towns of Baneh and Ushnu about 200 km of frontier lay in the Soujbulak constituency. The Russian delegate to the Commission was Vladimir Minorsky. Iyas who was supplying the Commission with reconnaissance, logistics and provisions, had frequent opportunities to meet up with his friend and colleague.
(Figure 6) Alexander Iyas 24 August 1913, Mamed Amin Agha Piran (seated left) in front of Bayz Pasha Mangur’s men, Tirkesh. The Finnish Museum of Photography, Helsinki
(Figure 7) Alexander Iyas 1 August 1914, The Border Demarcation Commission’s camp, Ushnu. 3rd, 4th and 5th from left: A Iyas, V Minorsky and Mrs Minorsky. The Finnish Museum of Photography, Helsinki
On 1 August 1914 Iyas travelled to Ushnu where the Border Commission had set up camp. He commemorated the occasion with several photographs, including one of a small group in military attire standing in front of some tents, facing the person to whom Iyas had entrusted his camera. At the centre of the picture and half a step in front of the group is Vladimir Minorsky with his wife on his left and Iyas on his right. On the picture’s left are two officers provisionally identified as Captain A T Wilson and Lieut-Col R E Ryder of the British delegation, and a few paces away on Mrs Minorsky’s side, a Russian aide-de-camp holds some documents under his arm. Minorsky later recalled the event in his obituary for Alexander Iyas:13 “On 19 July [1 August in the present day Gregorian calendar, author’s note] Alexander Iyas came to meet us in Ushnu and brought news of the outbreak of the Austro-Serbian war. We felt the coming of still more menacing events; death’s shadow was cast upon one of us.” Germany had declared war on Russia. The next day, Turkey signed a secret alliance with Germany and started mobilising its troops.
The catastrophic events which followed are described by Minorsky:
“When on 16 October 1914 [29 October 1914] the war with Turkey began, Alexander Iyas was given the order to evacuate Soujbulak. However, on 21 October, he cabled back saying that this was premature and that his presence acted to subdue the local Kurds.
…. On 17 November, hostile forces occupied the Persian district of Lahijan near Soujbulak, and finally, on 19 November, “in the light of the danger threatening the town,” Alexander Iyas closed the Consulate and left in the direction of Maragheh. He stopped halfway in the small town of Mianduab where the retreating Persian forces had gathered.
(Figure 8) Alexander Iyas, 1914, Soujbulak in winter. The Finnish Museum of Photography, Helsinki
On 29 December 1914, as the Turkish troops and their Kurdish followers arrived at the gates of the town, Iyas returned one last time to his residence to retrieve some belongings. There he was assassinated, beheaded, his head lanced and paraded in front of the invading troops as they headed north to take Tabriz from the Russians.
On 2 February 1915 the Russians recaptured the city and, at the battle of Sufyan, recovered some of Iyas’ items on a fallen Turkish officer, including his seal, his portable icon and some photographic negatives.
Minorsky wrote Iyas’ obituary and, in a tribute to his memory, organised an exhibition of his photographs at the Ministry in St Petersburg.14 Minorsky was subsequently appointed to the Russian Legation in Tehran where he remained until 1919 and his departure for France and, eventually, Britain.
Iyas’ body was never found. His negatives and prints which I inherited from his nieces (my aunts) in Finland are kept at the Finnish Museum of Photography, Helsinki.
1 Bosworth, C E 2002: ‘Vladimir Minorsky: Russian Kurdologist,’ Bulletin, School of Oriental and African
Studies, Volume 14, pp667-681.
2 To ascertain whether their friendship preceded this period one would need to gain access to the Minorsky archive housed at the Institute of Oriental Studies, St Petersburg.
3 Iyas studied at the Eastern Languages Unit of Ministry of Foreign Affairs in St Petersburg and Minorsky at the Lazarev Institute in Moscow.
4 Iyas, Alexander 1914: ‘Soujbulak, Donesenia Ross. Konsul. Predstav,’ Izd. Minist. Torgovli Соджбулаг, Донесения Императорского Российского Консула, Известия Министерства Topговли, Volume 38 pp1-47. Iyas, Alexander 1915: ‘Poyezdka po Persiiski Kurdistan,’ Izv. Minist. Inostr. Поездка по северному Персидскому Курдистану, Известия Министерства Иностранных Дел Volume 4, pp182- 200 (posthumous publication). Minorsky, Vladimir and Shipley, H S 1915: ‘Obezd Okupirovanikh Turtsie persiidskikh Okrugov v 1911 godu, Materiali po Izucheniu Vostoka Объезд окупированных Турецко-Персидских округов в 1911 году. Материалы по изучению Востока, fasc. 2, pp1-131. Minorsky, Vladimir 1915: Turetskoye-Persiidskaya granitsa,’ Materiali po Izucheniu Vostoka Турецко-Персидская граница, Материалы по изучениюВостока, fasc. 2, pp443-480.
5 Minorsky, Vladimir 1915: ‘A I Iyas,’ Izv. Min. Inostr. Del, Volume 4, p178.
6 Minorsky, Vladimir 1912: Arkhiv Vneshnei Politikii Rossisskoi Imperi,i Missia v Persii Архив внешней политики Российской Империи, Москва F194 O528b D65 L94-95v.
7 Kazemzadeh, Firuz 1968: Russia and Britain in Persia, 1864 – 1914, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, pp651- 652.
8 Iyas, Alexander 1912: Arkhiv Vneshnei Politikii Rossisskoi Imperii, Persidskii Stol Архив внешней политики Российской Империи, Москва F144 O489b D59 L52-54.
9 Iyas, Alexander 1913: Arkhiv Vneshnei Politikii Rossisskoi Imperii Missia v Persii Архив внешней политики Российской Империи, Москва F194 O528b D65 L25-31.
10 Iyas, Alexander 1915: ‘Poyezdka po Persiiski Kurdistan,’ Izv. Minist. Inostr. Del Поездка по северному Персидскому Курдистану, Известия Министерства Иностранных Дел, Volume 4, pp182-200 (posthumous publication).
11 Minorsky, Vladimir 1914: Arkhiv Vneshnei Politikii Rossisskoi Imperii Persidskii Stol Архив внешней политики Российской Империи, Персидский стол F144 O489 (1907-16) D1064d L71 Secret telegram No 229.
12 See, for example, Siegel, Jennifer 2002: Endgame, Britain, Russia and the Final Struggle for Central Asia. London and New York: I B Tauris, pp1-273.
13 Minorsky, Vladimir 1915: ‘A I Iyas,’ Izv. Min. Inostr. Del Известия Министерства Иностранных Дел, Volume 4, p179.
14 Minorsky, Vladimir 1915: ‘A I Iyas,’ Izv. Min. Inostr. Del Известия Министерства Иностранных Дел, Volume 4, p181.
Acknowledgments [by John Tchalenko]
I would like to thank the Finnish Museum of Photography in Helsinki, the British Academy, Camberwell College of Arts, the Photography and Archive Research Centre at the London College of Communication and the Iran Heritage Foundation for supportduring all stages of the Iyas project. JT
John Tchalenko was working as an earthquake geologist in Iran when he first came to know about Alexander Iyas. On researching the Foreign Office archives he discovered that Iyas had been his great uncle, and eventually located Iyas’s reports to St Petersburg and all his known photographs. John Tchalenko is presently Reader in Drawing and Cognition at the University of the Arts, London.
For a more detailed account of the life and work of Alexander Iyas see Tchalenko, John 2006: Images from the Endgame: Persia through a Russian Lens 1901-1914, London: Saqi (autumn 2006). An exhibition of Iyas’ photographs featured at the Brunei Gallery, London, in October 2006.
Reproduced from Eastern Art Report print edition, Issue 59. Download and view.

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